On September 22, 1897, Mrs. Edith Gifford boarded a yacht on the Hudson River along with other members of the New Jersey State Federation of Women’s Clubs (NJSFWC) and male allies from the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society (ASHPS). The goal of this riverine excursion was to assess the horrible defacement of the Palisades cliffs by quarrymen, who blasted this ancient geological structure for the needs of commerce—specifically, trap rock used to build New York City streets, piers, and the foundations of new skyscrapers. All on board felt that seeing the destruction firsthand, with their own eyes, was the first step in galvanizing support for a campaign to stop the blasting of the cliffs.
The campaign that followed was successful: Women from the NJSFWC lobbied Governor Foster Voorhees, while men from the ASHPS found support in their own Governor Theodore Roosevelt. Their efforts led to the creation of the Palisades Interstate Park Commission (PIPC) in 1900 through an act to "preserve the scenery of the Palisades." Under President George Perkins, the Commission purchased or received successive tracks of land to save the Palisades from quarry operators, resulting in iconic recreational areas such as Bear Mountain State Park. When the Palisades Interstate Park opened in 1909, few could imagine that it would become one of the most popular public parks in the entire nation. A landscape marked by resource extraction became a landscape of recreation, environmental education, and nature appreciation.
The yacht trip characterized the collaborative nature of this critically important conservation story. What brought these groups and others together was not only a shared interest in the value of scenic beauty and recreation, but also a desire to save the trees growing along the base and top of the cliffs—an issue tied to other environmental initiatives at the time, especially the creation of a public park in the Adirondacks to protect the sources of the Hudson River. Women from the NJSFWC, especially Mrs. Edith Gifford, joined leading forestry experts like Gifford Pinchot and Bernhard Fernow in calling for the protection of the Palisades woodlands and other forested areas across New Jersey. Unlike scientific foresters, however, Mrs. Gifford and other women focused on public pedagogy. Through their efforts, the NJSFWC prepared the way for civic education, nature study, and environmental stewardship in Palisades Interstate Park and beyond.
Seeing the Forest from the Rocks
In the mid-1890s, as people on both sides of the Hudson began advocating for the preservation of the Palisades cliffs, many scientists and politicians were also beginning to recognize the importance of forests to water supplies. The publication of George Perkins Marsh's bestselling book Man and Nature in 1864 generated public discussion of the potentially disastrous consequences of large-scale deforestation: When trees are destroyed, Marsh warned, the ground loses its ability to hold moisture, and the disturbed ground becomes more susceptible to erosion. Deforestation threatened entire watersheds, impacting commerce, navigation, and public water supplies. His conclusions influenced emerging forestry experts, businessmen, and politicians, ultimately leading to the creation of a Forest Preserve in 1885, Adirondack Park in 1892, and the addition of the “Forever Wild” clause to New York State’s constitution in 1894.
Just as in the Adirondacks, scientific foresters in New Jersey raised concerns about the impact of deforestation on the state’s water supplies. As urban and suburban populations across New Jersey swelled, many felt that preserving water supplies and spaces for recreation was more valuable, and more feasible, than reviving timber revenues. In 1894, the NJ State Legislature ordered that a survey of the state’s forests be included in the State Geological Survey. The survey’s purpose was to determine the possibility of creating a network of forest reserves across the state to satisfy needs for water and recreation. It highlighted how the forests of the Palisades were composed of high quality, old-growth trees, vital to the protection of water supplies in the Hackensack Valley below. The survey also noted the Palisades’ value for future students of forestry. “This beautiful forest,” the report stated, “has almost as good a claim to future preservation as the escarpment of the Palisades.”
The State Forester of New Jersey at the time was Dr. John Gifford, husband of NJSFWC member Mrs. Edith Gifford. Both had been active members of the American Forestry Association and shared a passion for trees. Dr. Gifford was the founding editor of New Jersey Forester, which ultimately became American Forestry, the journal of the U.S. Forest Service. Mrs. Gifford was active in numerous urban reform and environmental campaigns. After the establishment of the NJSFWC in 1894, she worked to bring the issue of forestry into the discourse surrounding the preservation of the Palisades from quarrying. A newspaper report described her this way: “Mrs. Gifford is a New Jersey woman who makes a special study of forestry for the NJSFWC when not engaged in household duties. She can tell you all about the management of European forests…[and] pathetic tales of wanton destruction of beautiful forests in this country.” In 1896, she was appointed Chair of a new Committee on Forestry and Protection of the Palisades at the NJSFWC.
While scientific foresters focused on reports and surveys, Mrs. Gifford devoted herself to educating the public. At a NJSFWC meeting in 1896, which was attended by numerous state legislators and some of the nation's leading foresters, she showcased a traveling forestry library and exhibition, intended to educate the public, and especially children, about the importance of forests and forestry. The exhibition included contrasting images of ‘pristine’ forests and those ravaged by lumber dealers for economic profit; depictions of trees in art and leaf charts by Graceanna Lewis; maps of New Jersey forests and their connection to the state's geology; portraits of notable trees; and examples of erosion caused by deforestation in France and other European countries. The library consisted of a bookcase made of oak, encased in “a traveling dress of white duck.” Other women’s groups, libraries, and schools across the state could apply for the privilege of hosting it for a month. It included major forestry textbooks of the day, including What is Forestry? by Bernhard Fernow; Franklin Hough’s Elements of Forestry; tree planting manuals; and pamphlets on forestry’s importance to watershed protection and timber supplies.
Sargent attended the meeting and wrote a rave review in his journal, Garden and Forest. Applauding the role of women in increasing public literacy about trees, forests, and forestry, he linked their efforts directly to policy making. "No comprehensive forest policy," he wrote, "can even be devised without a more cultivated public sentiment." The exhibition and traveling forestry library were not merely didactic tools, Sargent explained; they encouraged a sentimental connection between trees and people. The "cultivation of a sympathetic love of trees," for Sargent, was the basis for citizen involvement in forestry, forest preservation, and nature appreciation. “The arrangement of this exhibit," Sargent remarked, "was so effective that it seemed a pity that it must be transient, and the suggestion that every library and schoolroom should have something of this kind…was felt by all who saw it.” In the wake of this meeting, Mrs. Gifford’s traveling forestry library circulated in women’s clubs across the state. Clubs applied for the privilege of hosting the oak bookcase for a month at their own expense and used it to generate public discussion of forestry issues. Explaining the necessity of such a library as well as other forms of outreach—including reading circles and exhibitions—Gifford stressed the centrality of pedagogy to policy making: “Much education is needed to bring about necessary legislation and progressive methods,” she argued.
Going further, Mrs. Gifford took the cause of public education and forestry to the national level. At a General Federation of Women’s Clubs meeting in 1896, of which the New Jersey State Federation was a part, she urged members across the country to take a pledge to forestry by declaring among themselves, “We pledge ourselves to take up the study of forest conditions and resources, and to further the highest interests of our several States in these respects.” Copies of the document were sent out to all 1500 local GFWC clubs as well as the press, augmenting both women’s role in forest protection and public awareness of the problem. The pledge in its entirety was published in her husband's journal, The Forester, shortly afterwards, ensuring widespread media attention.
Mrs. Gifford was not the NJSFWC’s lone forestry advocate. Mrs. Katherine Sauzade, for instance, included the value of the Palisades woodlands in her 1897 speech calling for the preservation of the Palisades. Whereas Mrs. Gifford stressed the importance of healthy forests to healthy waterways, Mrs. Sauzade instead emphasized the role of trees in creating the “wild, rugged character” of their beloved Palisades. In this instance, trees functioned as part of the scenic beauty of the area; their value was not as parts of an invisible system, but as part of the visual splendor of the place. For Sauzade, destroying the scenic beauty of the trees as well as the cliffs was an attack on civilization itself. “We cannot escape,” she wrote, “the disgrace, nor the just censure of the civilized world if we permit, by further neglect, the continued defacement of these grand cliffs.”
By the time the yacht set sail on the Hudson in September 1897, therefore, forestry was already a dominant interest at the NJSFWC and elsewhere in the state. On deck, watching the blasting of the cliffs of the Palisades at the Carpenter Brother’s quarry, Mrs. Gifford declared that “the forestry interest…exceeds the interest of preserving the bluffs.” Reminding her colleagues of her studies of the Palisades woodlands, she remarked that “in some places, the Palisades look exactly as they did when Hendrick Hudson sailed up the river. That is a very remarkable thing to find a primeval forest near the heart of a great metropolis.” Mrs. Gifford’s statement was supported by Joseph Lamb of the ASHPS, who built one of the first resorts on the Palisades in the 1850s. “The Palisades,” he stated on the yacht, “are perhaps more valuable as woodlands than anything else.” At a national GFWC meeting in 1898, NJSFWC President Cecelia Gaines (later Cecilia Gaines Holland), raised the issue of forestry and the protection of the Palisades once again: “There are utilitarian reasons for the protection of the Palisades,” she told club members. “The valleys at their feet are covered with farms and small towns whose water supplies are drawn from sources in the Palisades. Disturb or remove these sources by blasting and the dwellers below suffer in consequence.”
From Nature Study to Nature Appreciation
Despite the essential role of the NJSFWC in the creation of the Palisades Interstate Park Commission in 1900, women were excluded from the commission itself on the basis of their gender. This, however, did not stop their involvement in Palisades conservation or in forestry more generally. In 1905, GFWC President Lydia Phillips Williams declared in a speech at the American Forestry Congress that “[The GFWC’s] interest in forestry is perhaps as great as that in any department of its work…[forestry committees] are enthusiastically spreading the propaganda for forest reserves and the necessity of irrigation.” By 1912, however, women were excluded once again, this time from the American Forestry Association—the organization that Mrs. Gifford had once been a part. Environmental historian Carolyn Merchant suggests that this shift was due to the full-fledged institutionalization of scientific forestry, which was not accessible to women, or to their opposition to Hetch Hetchy.
With the creation of the PIPC in 1900, interest in protecting the forests of the Palisades for water supplies continued. At the opening ceremony for Palisades Interstate Park in 1909, New York Governor Charles Evans Hughes stated that he hoped that the creation of the park was the first step in “[safeguarding] the Highlands and waters…The entire watershed which lies to the north should be conserved.” George Frederick Kunz, a curator at the American Museum of Natural History, echoed this sentiment in his own address. Pointing to the example of the Adirondacks, he said, “It must be borne in mind that without your forests you would have no lakes…until we have reforested our hills, we will not have proper water for this river.”
Reforesting the Palisades through tree planting was part of the growth of the park itself. Students at newly created professional forestry programs at Yale and the New York State College of Forestry in Syracuse contributed to this process—in 1916 alone, students planted 700,000 trees. In the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps managed wooded areas in Palisades Interstate Park, planted trees, and constructed new infrastructure. Forestry students also used the woodlands of the Palisades as a laboratory, studying the area’s vegetation, conducting ecological surveys, and developing forest management plans.
Yet, as Palisades Interstate Park grew, the social and recreational aspects of forestry were stressed more than its importance for water or timber supplies. Given their close proximity to New York City, the value of the Palisades’ woodlands to public welfare and urban reform—key tenets of the Progressive Era—could not be ignored. In 1920, the New York State College of Forestry at Syracuse published a bulletin that outlined the value of “recreational forestry” in the Palisades. “The Palisades Interstate Park of New York and New Jersey,” it stated, “on account of its proximity to the American metropolis, is, and should be, dominated by the needs of the people in the vicinity of this great city.” In a section called “Forests versus City Streets,” the author addressed how forestry camps could improve the well-being of New York City’s low-income residents. “Outdoor influences,” he wrote, “…curb and counteract tendencies of other environments which fail to promote the ultimate good of these juvenile elements of society.” He continued, “Impossible it is to estimate the aggregate of all the impressions of associations that stir the dull soul…and influences that prompt to effort and incite nobler living.”
Similarly, an ecological survey of Palisades Interstate Park in 1919 included an entire section on “The Relation of Forests and Forestry to Human Welfare.” While the survey began by discussing social forestry initiatives in Palisades Interstate Park, it concluded by addressing the public needs that inspired National Parks: “The moment that recreation…is recognized as a legitimate Forest utility the way is opened for a more intelligent administration of the National Forests. Recreation then takes its proper place along with all other utilities.” Far from city streets, park visitors experienced the wonder of the Palisades woodlands firsthand through excursions and nature study. When they left, they brought back a new appreciation for nature of all kinds.
Mrs. Gifford’s pedagogical mission, therefore, was ultimately realized in the park itself. Few could have predicted in the 1890s how much of an impact the introduction of trees to a campaign to save an ancient geological structure would have. Recognition of the importance of an informed public shaped not only the growth of the park itself, but also the future of environmentalism in the United States.
Jeanne Haffner, Ph.D., is a landscape historian and associate curator of “Hudson Rising” (March 1 - August 4, 2019) at the New-York Historical Society. She previously taught environmental history and urban planning history and theory at Harvard and Brown Universities, and was a postdoctoral fellow in Urban Landscape Studies at Dumbarton Oaks (Harvard).
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